Obviously I can’t answer the question that is the title of this post. There are too many personal choices involved in the answer, including how the pen feels in your hand, whether the eraser fits your use of it, price, availability, and the most important attribute of all – color.
But I think we ignore our mechanical pencils, using them day after day without thinking about whether there is a better/different one that would provide different results. At the same time, we burn endless amounts of time, energy and ink talking about sketchbooks, pens, and even the containers we use to carry our stuff. Why not our pencils? I thought it time to talk just a bit about the mechanical pencil when used by a sketcher.
First, a couple of caveats. I’m a sketcher who shuns the great modern wisdom that anyone who uses pencils in advance of their ink drawing is a sissy. I work directly with pen for a lot of things but for anything detailed I’m going to use a pencil to rough in the drawing before turning to ink. I must say that I’m glad so many of the classic ‘greats’ of the artist world didn’t get the memo about avoiding pencil.
On the flipside, I’m not a pencil artist. I ONLY use them for laying out a drawing. If you’re someone who does complete, shaded drawings with pencil, I sometimes envy your mastery of pencil shading. You’re probably using 2mm or larger leads if you use a mechanical pencil at all. I apologize but I can’t speak to this form of pencil use at all. Here I’m talking about pencil use for either quick sketching or for roughing out more complex sketches. A man’s gotta know his limitations.
This is definitely a “different strokes” thing but I open with it because something must be said. “Standard” mechanical pencil lead is generally HB. Whether that suits you or not is probably as much dependent upon the paper you use than anything else. Those using smooth papers may lean towards softer leads (2B?) while rough papers call for harder leads (2H?). For myself, I use 2H or 3H leads on my smooth papers as I want very light lines while organizing what will be an ink drawing. If I were using the pencil to quick sketch (I use ink) I’d probably switch to 2B.
The other issue is diameter of the lead. Most mechanical pencils range from 0.5 to 2mm leads, with the vast majority of them being 0.5 or 0.7mm. In that range, it really becomes a personal preference. I use 0.7mm mostly because they break less. I’m a klutz; what can I say?
Choosing A Pencil
As I’ve indicated, there are a lot of personal things that go into this choice. I won’t address any of them. You know if you need an exposed eraser or one that’s capped. You know if you like the feel of knurled metal grips or not. What I want to talk about are three unique mechanical pencils that address issues that may not be quite so obvious to the casual pencil buyer.
Before doing so, however, I’ll make a couple basic comments. There are differences in pencil quality and one could spend an endless amount of time comparing and contrasting the various makes and models. I’ll boil it down to a single sentence – buy cheap, buy twice, or three, or four times. There are roughly a gazillion mechanical pencils that are priced between $2 and $6. They’re made of plastic and corners are cut in many parts of the mechanism that either shorten their lives or make them sloppy at holding the lead. I’d avoid them, though I’ve bought my share of them. If nothing else, wiggle the tip with the lead exposed and see it if moves. If it does, buy something else.
Most pencils I’ve tried in the $7-15 seem well-made and it really does come down to those personal preferences when making a choice. Anything over this price range falls more into the “ain’t that cool” category and you won’t gain much functionality, but you may become the cool kid with the fancy pencil in your group, which is never a bad thing. I’ll show you one exception to that below in the form of the Caran D’Arche pencil.
Zebra ‘el cheap’ pencil
This is the bottom rung of mechanical pencils and, oddly enough, unique and useful for sketchers. You can pick these up in many stores for the princely sum of 50 cents. They’re meant to be a disposable pencil that sort of looks like a pencil. But you can refill them. I doubt you could find replacement erasers for them. As far as I know, they are all 0.5mm.
What’s really nice about them is that they are shorter than your typical pencil and they are VERY light. If you’re traveling, hiking, or wandering around town doing urban sketching, these are great pencils to carry with you. I carry one as my back up pencil.
Uniball Kuro Toga
This is a unique mechanical pencil. Some even talk of it being revolutionary. Its mechanism is an attempt to solve an age-old problem for pencil sketchers, and that is the ever-changing shape of the end of their lead. As the pencil is used the lead becomes rounded and you get a thicker and thicker line. This is as true for mechanical pencils as it is for wooden pencils.
The Kuro Toga solves this problem as it actually rotates the lead 1/4 turn every time you advance the lead so you always have a ‘new’ edge on your lead. How cool is that? It does take a bit of getting used to as if you’ve been using mechanical pencils for a long time it’s likely that you automatically rotate your pencil, always chasing a sharp edge. You have to retrain yourself not to do that as the pencil is doing it for you, and doing it better.
These pencils come in two forms – metal and plastic. The street price for the metal pencil is $16-17, while the plastic one show above is around $7.50. They’re available in 0.3mm and 0.5mm and both versions can be had in a variety of colors.
Caran D’Arche Pencil
At first glance this French-made pencil looks like many others. It is extremely well made, with a lacquered metal body a clip that, while removable, also snaps in place if you do use it. It has all the features of a superbly made mechanical pencil. Thank can be said for other pencils as well, though, and that’s not why I’ve included it here or why it’s become my ‘go to’ pencil. Rather, this choice is all about balance.
That’s right…balance. Have you ever thought about it with respect to a mechanical pencil? If you actually check the balance of mechanical pencils you generally find that they balance either at the mid-point or a bit in front of it. How far this is from the point, of course, is then dependent upon how long the pencil is, which varies somewhat.
Is that optimal? Maybe, maybe not. For those of us who use fountain pens, or even posted Pitt or Sakura pens, we’re used to pointy things with a balance point behind the mid-point. We’re used to the weight being born mostly by the fleshy lump between our thumb and forefinger. So, to match that, we’d need a mechanical pencil with its balance point behind the mid-point, just like our pens.
Well, shazaam…that’s exactly what you get with the Caran D’Arche mechanical pencil. Those French think of everything. I just love this pencil for that reason – it feels like a fountain pen. It’s also very nice if you want to lightly shade something as the tip can be floated over the paper much easier. If there’s a downside to this pencil it’s that Caran D’Arche has spared no expense in producing a very precise, metal-bodied pen with a super finish, and you get to pay for the privilege of owning one. I paid $28 for mine and consider it money well-spent.
What’s important to you when it comes to mechanical pencils? Which is your favorite?